New Journalism & Norman Mailer


Oh god. Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republic and Democratic Conventions of 1968 just reminded me of how nervous I am about the weak and horrible writings that will likely rise from Cleveland journalists once they attempt to cover the 2016 Republic Convention this July.

But moving on to Mailer.

Oh wait.  Before we move on I just want to add that I always approach these blogs with a dizzying amount of hesitancy and discomfort because I’ve been assigned to “pose in-depth reactions to the assigned texts,” which means some of what I’m writing is reactionary, and thus unreliable. I’m literally reading the texts, writing a reaction and then posting for the world to see — something I’d NEVER do (not so quickly, anyhow)! I’m only saying all of this because I’ve been meaning to get that off my chest and plus Mailer’s text is highly political (he’s covering the Republican and Democratic conventions of 1968 and the anti-Vietnam war protests) and I get really sensitive and cautious about what I say or what’s being said whenever politics is the stage for conversation. Therefore, I’m only interested in discussing Mailer’s writing style.

He definitely has the word observant on lock. Watch as he describes a scene from the park:

For one of the next acts it hardly mattered — a young white singer with a                                     cherubic face, perhaps eighteen, maybe twenty-eight, his hair in one huge puff ball          teased out six to nine inches from his head, in one huge puff ball teased out six to nine inches from his head, was taking off on an interplanetary, then galactic, flight of song, halfway between the space music of Sun Ra and “The Flight of the Bumblebee,”             buzzing fly, his sound an electric caterwauling of power come out of the wall…

See what I mean? His writing grounds us in place and we can picture (and smell and feel and hear) everything. This is what captivated me about Mailer’s style. His dedication to detail is admirable.

I’d also call him an acerbic observant. He certainly makes certain to give us subjective observation. For example, Mailer describes Mayor Daley (of Chicago) in the following manner:

It was as if the primitive powers of the Mayor’s lungs, long accustomed to breathing all variety of blessings and curses (from the wind of ancestors, constituents, and screaming beasts in the stockyards where he had once labored for a decade more) could take everything into his chest, mighty barrel of a chest in Richard J. Daley, 200 pounds, 5 feet 8 tall.

He’s slick. I’m imagining his personality came with the same slipperiness. I don’t know too much about Mailer’s personal life or overall character, but I’m going to take a guess and say he probably wasn’t a mass favorite. I’m going with that guess because his writing style is arrogant and sharp. But…when you’re a writer you have to give credit where credit is due and Mailer (at least in this piece) is definitely a strong chronicler.

After I write this reaction to Mailer’s text I’m going to go dig up more about him. I think it’s a beautiful thing to read someone’s work and get a little sense of who they might be off the page and without writing utensil. I’ll be taking deep notes on Mailer’s devotion to detail.

I’ll close with this: Now Mailer has me thinking more deeply about narration. Throughout the text I wondered why he chose to write in third person. My guess is that he wanted to run/stray away from the “I”. Why?  Sometimes I feel like writers run away from the “I” when they are afraid or unreliable. Thoughts?  I don’t want to share all of mine so fast, so soon.


4 thoughts on “New Journalism & Norman Mailer

  1. The way I look at Mailer’s avoidance of using “I” is so that he can maintain a distance in the reader’s eyes from the the action, but maybe even more so he can critique himself and allow the reader to put themselves in his place and question their own ideas and beliefs. As a nonfiction writer who writes a lot of personal experience stuff, I have only used “I” because I am trying to create a connection between my experiences and the reader. It has never occurred to me to do this sort of third-person narrative from a first-person perspective, but it is a fascinating and effective technique. I had read a bit of Mailer’s work prior to this piece, and I also had the advantage (or disadvantage) of having seen him in many interviews and debating other intellectuals of his day on television, as well as knowing quite a bit about his dramatic personal life. So I knew what his general attitude was, but reading a piece like this really fills in the gaps of the Mailer character.

    I love this comment you made:

    “His writing grounds us in place and we can picture (and smell and feel and hear) everything. This is what captivated me about Mailer’s style. His dedication to detail is admirable.”

    I felt exactly that while reading. I thought maybe it was because I’ve seen so many documentaries about the 1968 convention, but reading his words as somebody who was there the whole week and who was involved in some way really brought it more to life than it’s ever been for me.


  2. I agree with Dana on this one, I think the use of “the reporter” instead of “I” in Mailer’s work was specifically to provide some distance and make sure that the spotlight is on the events he’s telling and not himself. In another way, I think making it about “the reporter” also serves to make it so that this isn’t just his own personal experience, but this was more of a definite way of things happening to everyone who was there at that time. A shared experience. For me, “the reporter” also holds more authority than an “I” would because there’s no self-reflection or self-involvement that would distract a reader. It almost feels like he’s able to avoid bias with this trick. Since he’s also using a third person-esque approach, he doesn’t need to waste any time describing any details about himself or the way he was received or what his involvement really was in all of this chaos, it’s all just focused on the things happening around him, the people he saw, the overwhelming presence of the assembly of people, and the youth vs. government struggle that the work was trying to portray.


    1. Hi Adam,

      Thanks for your comment. I should have been a bit clearer in my original post. When I closed with “thinking more deeply about narration,” I meant deep as in below, below the obvious. Tom Wicker’s introduction provided enough insight on Mailer’s use of the third person for me to understand the obvious (“Styling himself ‘the reporter’ throughout, he is enabled by this broader point of view to stand back from himself as could not believably be done in a first-person narration and discuss…”). But if we dismiss Wicker’s observation and our own straightforward understanding of third-person storytelling, I wonder what we would discover.


  3. Ali/All

    I think the thing we discover is that Mailer is using the third person perspective as an animating tension in the work. He tries to show how his attempts to simply be a reporter are continually being complicated by the political environment, which seemingly has a lot to do with pressuring people to make a personal choice: be a revolutionary, protest, support the police, etc. But are these protestors really choosing to be another “I” for a cause or are they swept up in the tenets of what others are saying is right, and then they are subjugating their own subjectivtity for the larger cause, to feel as if they belong somewhere, on a certain side that perhaps externally seems right? I think this tension comes in most interestingly in how Mailer reveals himself making a personalized kind of speech–saying to the crowds that he himself must be distant to keep writing, to stay objective, so in effect he can’t protest directly–and the crowd still supports him for it, even though normally they might expect someone with cultural clout like Mailer to be marching with them. But why do they support his subjective need and view? What I think is going on is Mailer’s showing how the mob mentality that can come with protesting is making people feel that they have an objective perspective on the world, but in truth they are relying on the subjective outlooks of the few who are moving/inspiring them to protest; they respond to his unique spin on the situation because like he’s making a concerted choice–and they respect that, as they feel they are too, by protesting. But not all of them are standing on a soapbox as Mailer is; not all of them are simultaneously beside and above all the other protestors. So I think Mailer’s trying to show how objective journalism is problematic; when he stares down from his hotel window at the crowd being attacked, he thinks the scene is beautiful. He’s distant from it. He’s objective; he doesn’t care how it ends, just that it is something to be reported, something aesthetic he can watch and choose how to feel about, rather than be moved or to move others to feel any way about it. But if he was down there with them, he might just blindly take a side, and that has its problems too.

    Hope this makes some sense.


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